Beware the Tulpa

Beware the Tulpa May 8, 2018


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Tulpa: “A mythical entity that becomes realized through collective attention and belief” (Indian Buddhist mythology).

If you are at all exposed to media these days – television, radio, newspaper, e-mail and other social media – you are regularly treated to a view of a world filled with many things to be fearful of or outraged about. In such context, life often appears to be a chronic struggle between the forces of good and evil (though much of the controversy centers around who or what falls under each category).

Life on planet Earth does come with a fair number of threats and challenges. Modern civilization has mitigated many of these, such as famine and disease, but has also created new ones like the technologies of destruction, extreme inequality, or the unintended consequences of technology.

However, in addition to addressing legitimate threats and concerns, modern technology also amplifies the promotion of those that are false or illusory. The furor over “fake news” for example, is getting much attention at the moment, raising concerns about our ability to properly function as a democratic society. Yet there have always been those who will attempt to advance an agenda or turn a profit by promoting real or imagined problems, then offering real or imagined solutions to the same. Modern technology simply expands the scope and reach of such efforts.

This latter point raises another question: under what conditions might collective attention and focus actually create problems?

Some threats, like disease pathogens in a population or fire or flood risk, can be objectively measured and mitigated. Another class of threats is entirely generated in the mind — racism, phobias, political disputes, violations of social norms or religious strictures. These are usually measured indirectly by their effects. A third class might be those concerns that are often labeled “conspiracy theory” — chemtrails, HAARP, Agenda 21, extraterrestrial cover-up, and the like.

This is not however to imply that all of the latter are “crazy”. The current political controversy around elections, foreign meddling, campaign dirty tricks, and media manipulation also inspires fervent belief despite the difficulties in gaining hard evidence. True or not, when a critical mass of the population begins to embrace strong beliefs about institutional corruption or xenophobia for example, real danger can follow.

Beware the Tulpa

A number of mystical traditions contain the notion of a mythical phenomenon or entity (usually malevolent: voodoo curse, zombies, golem) that can be brought to “life” in order to cause real world effects. An Indian Buddhist version of this is the “tulpa” – a mythical entity that becomes real when a sufficient number of people believe in and focus conscious attention upon it.

Before dismissing the above as primitive or crazy, note that many of the elements of common, faith-based religious practice – heaven, hell, angels and demons – are realized for many by a similar principle.

Further, as an entirely secular example, consider the phenomenon of modern money. The money we use today is entirely conceptual. The physical media that symbolize money – electronic bits and bytes, slips of paper and coins have little intrinsic value. Yet most of life in the modern world is controlled, guided, and focused by our collective beliefs about the needs and dictates of this “entity”. Some will even lie, cheat, steal, kill, or go to war in service of it.

Socio-political Tulpas

Initiatives in the domain of public social policy are roughly divided into two efforts — mitigating the “bad” and furthering the “good”.  The former is generally about law and order, control, and regulation (energy “against” something), whereas the latter focuses upon provision of the resources and services that support people in becoming better, happier citizens (energetically “for”). Both efforts are needed to a degree in contemporary society, yet those of various political persuasions will tend to emphasize one or the other.

Perhaps due to our evolutionary survival conditioning, human consciousness seems far more attentive to and fascinated by the negatives – threats, dangers, controversy, scandal, crime, and the like. (You are probably familiar with the news reporting maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads”. Alternatively, “good news” newspapers tend not to thrive for long.)

Accordingly, those who seek to gain public attention and sway public sentiment often do so by enumerating, magnifying, or even concocting the dangers of existence. Currently, the demonization of foreign races and leaders, whether true or not, substantially affects public debate, policy, and our general experience of the world.

Full disclosure: I (the writer) generally fall on the Liberal/Progressive side of public policy — which I like to believe is directed toward nurturing the best in human nature and caring for the planet in a way that enhances the life experiences and opportunities of all.

Yet at the moment, the Progressive dynamic appears to have become significantly derailed by current events. The chaos, confusion, and alarm stirred up by national and international events have largely drawn Progressives away from their positive, hopeful vision (“for”), and seduced them into a perpetual struggle “against” (note that the central organizing meme of the moment is “Resist”).

Of course when an acute crisis arises, the primary energy applied is “against” the problem (e.g. when fire breaks out, we “fight” it). Yet in looking over the past year or two, we as a nation have been beset with one crisis after another — hacked elections, political corruption, “Me too”, racism, climate crisis, inequality, “illegal” aliens, crazy dictators, nuclear threats, religious radicalism, fake news, school shootings, data security breaches … one might legitimately wonder if there is not a deliberate effort to keep public attention reactive and on red alert.

By our obsessive, collective focus on the above, we risk creating Tulpas – new demons that must be other-ed, feared, hated, and resisted. As Progressives, we then become seduced into acting against our basic nature and values, thereby losing our vision and effectively self-destructing.

Nineteenth Century psychologist William James once observed that “On whatever you place your attention that becomes your reality.”  I would urge us as a culture to once again focus on the reality that we want to create rather than the one we fear (and thereby empower with our attention).

To further punctuate the above I’ll end with another quote:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  — R. Buckminster Fuller

Let’s keep working on that new model!


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