What do the concepts normal, paranormal, and supernatural mean? Are their meanings the same – more or less the same – or completely different? Most people make no, or very little, distinction between them and even use the concepts paranormal and supernatural interchangeably. I have struggled with the meaning of these concepts for years, and have eventually gained insight and have reached some conclusions.
Therefore to begin, when we think about the universe some of us think only about the physical universe and/or nature (the physical universe plus life), but it is important to note that mystics have informed us since time immemorial that there are other worlds to be considered too.
However, what we experience on a daily basis is by far mostly explainable by physics and chemistry. Our contact with these ‘other’ worlds does not happen often and mostly never. Even the eerie experiences that some of us have had in life are largely not supernatural or paranormal. In fact, supernatural experiences very, very seldom ever occur. Paranormal experiences might be more common though.
The Holy Hebrew Kabbalah divides the one cosmic reality into four descending levels of divine consciousness, ‘worlds’, ‘levels’, ‘planes’, or ‘stages’ of manifestation, corresponding to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton and based on a verse in the Biblical Old Testament, namely:
Atziluth or ‘World of Emanations’. On this level the light of the Ain Soph radiates, and is still united with its source. Atziluth is also called the ‘Supernal World’.
Briah or ‘World of Creation’. On this level the first concept of creation ex nihilo however without any shape or form. This is also where the Highest Ranking Angels are to be found.
Yetzirah or ‘World of Formation’. On this level the created being assumes shape and form. The World of Yetzirah is commonly known as the Astral World.
Assiah or ‘World of Actions’. On this level the creation is complete. However, it is still in a spiritual level. At a later stage there is the ‘physical Assiah’ comprising our physical world with all its creatures.
In Hebrew, there are three words which have similar meaning. There are Bara, meaning ‘to create’, Yatzar, meaning ‘to form’, and Asah, meaning ‘to make’. According to the Kabbalists, Bara indicates creation ex nihilo, ‘something from nothing’. Yatzar denotes formation of something from a substance that already exists, ‘something from something’. Asah has the connotation of the completion of an action.
The Kabbalists teach that these stages parallel the three supernal universes, which are called Briah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation), and Assiah (Making). They are alluded to in the verse, ‘All that is called in My Name, for My Glory (Atziluth), I have created it (Briah), I have formed it (Yetzirah), and I have made it (Assiah)’. (Isaiah 43:7)
I prefer to divide reality into the three main worlds (levels), namely, the Supernatural (1), the Natural (2), and the Supra-natural (3) as shown in the accompanying figure, namely:
1. The Supernatural
(The Spiritual Reality – The ‘Otherworld’)
WORLD OF THE SPIRIT
2. The Natural World (Nature, The Biophysical Universe)
2a. Normal experience & Life
(Physical Reality – The Universe)
WORLD OF THE BODY
2b. The Paranormal, Death, &
The Mental Reality
(Psychical Reality – The ‘Beyond’)
WORLD OF THE PSYCHE
3. The Underworld, The Supra-natural (Hades – Hell)
In the associated figure, ‘Normal (2a) plus the Paranormal (2b)’ constitutes the ‘natural’ part (2) of reality. So we have three levels of being (worlds), namely:
The Supernatural (‘Heaven’)
The Natural world (The Normal, the Paranormal, and the Mental)
The Underworld (Greek: Hades, Hebrew: Gehenna or Gahanna)
The symbolism of the world, with its three levels, (1) celestial (the Supernatural), (2) terrestrial (the Normal and the Paranormal), and (3) infernal (the Underworld), corresponds to three levels of being or to the three modes of spiritual action. The inner life is thus projected into space in accordance with the general process of myth making.
The location of these worlds in ‘imaginary’ space is determined by their relationship with each other – the lower world (Hades) lying beneath the upper world (the Holy), the intermediate world (the Physical and the Psychical) lying between them. The words used to describe them, their arrangement in ‘vertical order’ set these worlds within ascensional movement and dialectic, and these emphasise their significance in terms of psyche (soul) and spirit.
The intermediate world (the Natural) receives Light (Spirit) from the upper world and the light stops there (as opposed to Mind) and goes down no further into the lower world (the Underworld). The intermediate world, however, only receives light to the degree to which it craves it, lays itself open to it or directs itself towards it. It is also liable to paths of darkness, those breaches in morality symbolised by rocky features, through which one slides into the Underworld.
Heaven (1) is the complex symbol of the sacred nature of the cosmic order, both revealed (manifested), in the regular, wheeling motion of the stars, and hidden, the idea of invisible orders of being that are superior to the phenomenal world: the transcendent divine and the immanent human orders.
Heaven is the universal symbol of superhuman powers, which may be either well intentioned or to be feared. It is the unfathomable ‘space’, the sphere of universal rhythms and great stars and, hence, the source of light and perhaps the guardian of the secrets of fate as well. Heaven is the abode of the gods and sometimes denote the power of the Godhead itself. It is also the abode of the Blessed (but not the dead). There are often thought to be seven (or nine) heavens. Clearly this involves a hierarchy of spiritual states which must be ascended one by one.
In a different light, both Heaven (1) and Earth (2 & 3) result from primeval polarisation, Heaven is the upper half of the World Egg. This is especially true of its representation in the Hindu tradition. Even when the symbolism is not explicitly stated, the notion of a link in the beginning between Heaven and Earth, which was later broken, is almost universal. Usually Heaven is not the supreme First Cause, but the positive pole of the manifest reality.
All beings (‘real’ or ‘imaginary’) are produced by the action of Heaven upon Earth. The penetration of Earth by Heaven is therefore seen as though it were a ‘sexual act’, its fruits either Man, son of Heaven and Earth, or, in the special symbolism of internal alchemy, the embryo of immortality. The myth of the marriage of Heaven and Earth is current, via India, Greece, Egypt and Africa, from Asia to the Americas. The phrase ‘Son of Heaven and Earth’ is as much part of the Orphic Mysteries as of Chinese literature.
The word Hades (2b/3?) is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word Sheol (2b?), denoting a dark region of the dead. Tartarus (3?), originally an abyss far below Hades and the place of punishment in the lower world, later lost its distinctness and became almost a synonym for Hades.
Sometimes ‘lower’ simply denotes the Earth in relation to Heaven and not this Underworld. The lower world is an intermediate place of trial and inner transformation from which the spirit is intended to ascend, but where it risks becoming depraved and perverted and falling into Hell (Hades).
The lower world is a phrase conveying the sense of movement, of ebb and flow, of repetition and of cycles (Sanskrit: ‘karma’). The individual eats only to become hungry again, drinks only to become thirsty, indulges in pleasure only to covet still more. All things are filled and emptied and suffer fresh satiety. This is why the unrighteous is said to go round in circles, like donkeys rotating a millstone. The lower world(s) (2 & 3) is a symbol of movement and the upper world (the Supernatural ) one of eternal stillness or tranquillity.
Paradise (or the Garden of Eden [1?]) is the Sanskrit paradesha, the all-highest place, the Chaldean Pardes. With its central spring and four rivers flowing to the four points of the compass, it is the first spiritual centre, the birthplace of tradition. It is also universally, the abode of immortality. It is the immovable centre, the heart of the world and the point at which Heaven and Earth enter into communion – spiritual union or consummation. The Earthly Paradise is inaccessible due to the breach of communion between Earth and Heaven, caused by ‘the Fall’. Paradise (Heaven) is the ‘Otherworld’ – the Supernatural, not the Paranormal or the Beyond!
Physical law may explain the inorganic. Biology explains and accounts for the development of the organic, but of the point of contact, science is silent.A similar passage exists between the natural world (2) and the spiritual world (1); this passage is hermetically sealed on the natural side. The door is closed; no human can open it, no organic change, no mental energy, no moral effort, no progress of any kind can enable any human being to enter the spiritual world.
The ‘Beyond’ (2b) is the mysterious realm to which all mortals go after their death. Nevertheless, the Beyond is part of the Natural (2) world – life and death are Natural. The Beyond differs from the ‘Otherworld’ (1) – when you die you go to the Beyond and not to the Otherworld. The Beyond is a world adjoining or often duplicating our own (2a), in the sense that its inhabitants are free to come and go between the two. They can even invite mortals in, while none returns from the Beyond – i.e. from death accept by being born again.
Just as your soul once was able to enter your body, it has the ability to incarnate again and again (in Sanskrit it is called metempsychosis and in Hebrew gilgolim or gilgul).
By its very definition the Otherworld (1) is a world of ‘gods’ as opposed to the world of ‘men’, organic/terrestrial beings who on their death depart for the Beyond (2b). The Otherworld is free from the constraints of time and space. Those who know it well are immortal and can gain it whenever they wish and wherever they may be.
Above all is a Holy World (1), with which (it is said or subsumed) human beings cannot communicate except at certain times and in certain places. When Christians came to transcribe Pagan legends with their descriptions of the Marvellous, they muddled the Otherworld (1) with the Beyond (2b) and with the biblical Garden of Eden (1?), so that the distinction between the Beyond and the Otherworld was lost.
For our purposes, the term normal (2a) means within the range of normal experience or the scientifically explainable realm. This usually describes phenomena, events, or abilities within normal capabilities of the human five senses (aural, visual, smell, tactile, and taste). These phenomena, observations, occurrences, et cetera are within the normal scope of scientific explanation, and are therefore possible to explain in terms of current understanding of scientific laws.
UFOs, extraterrestrials, and cryptozoology (mermaids, Big Foot, etc.) fall within the sphere of the normal (2a) – not the Paranormal (2b) or Supernatural (1). If we see Big Foot, or an extraterrestrial, talking to Larry King tomorrow, it will only be the extension of what is normal – something that (possibly) exist, but that were not seen (on Larry King, at least) before.
Are we alone in the universe? Well, this is a normal, scientific question, not a paranormal or even metaphysical one.
Is there intelligent life in the rest of the universe? This is an unintelligent question – all life is intelligent by definition. Unintelligent life is an oxymoron, e.g. a round circle.
Chaos theoryshows us that even an extremely, simple, mechanical system’s behaviour cannot always be predicted – how then will we ever be able to predict or understand the Paranormal (2b) or the Supernatural (1)? Our demonstrated ability to comprehend certain aspects of the physical universe (the ‘normal’ [2a]), or even our confirmed capacity to manipulate these aspects, does not mean that we understand (and is acquainted with) everything in the universe (2)!
It certainly does not mean that we can decide on the presence, or absence, of ‘Spirit’ in the universe from physical observations alone! We certainly do not know all the laws (physical or otherwise) of the universe either! You certainly cannot decide on the presence, or absence, of ‘Software’ in a PC from the physical observations of the hardware alone!
The term Paranormal (Sanskrit & Latin: “Para” means higher, ‘beyond’, supreme, or best. Often used as a prefix) – by definition – means beyond the range of normal experience, or scientific explanation, and is thus not scientifically explainable. This usually describes, phenomena, events or abilities beyond or above most people’s normal human powers or senses, pertaining to forces or mental processes, such as extrasensory perception or psycho kinesis, outside the possibilities defined by natural or scientific laws as paranormal phenomena.
These phenomena, observations, occurrences, et cetera are beyond the normal scope of scientific explanation, and therefore not possible to explain in terms of current understanding of any known scientific laws. The Paranormal (2b) might be part (or not) of the natural world (2) and therefore subject to natural law. The Paranormal is the realm of psychics.
The Supernatural (Latin: super- ‘above’ + nature) refers to entities, forces or phenomena which are not part of the natural world (2) and are not subject to natural laws, and therefore beyond verifiable measurement and experiment.
The Supernatural (1) pertains to, and is ‘above’ what is natural (2), unexplainable by natural law or phenomena, abnormal characteristics of the reality beyond the senses. The Supernatural (1) relates to existence outside the natural (2) world. As opposed to paranormal (2b), the term ‘supernatural’ (1) often connotes divine (or demonic ) intervention. This is the realm of mystics, the world of mysticism.
Now, what do the terms occult and esoteric then mean in this context?
The word occult comes from the Latin occultus (clandestine, hidden, secret), referring to ‘knowledge of the hidden’. It covers practices such as, astrology, casting spells, consulting with spirits (or possibly ghosts), magic/sorcery, witchcraft, and spiritism – i.e. knowledge of the paranormal. It also includes the use of secret (hidden/esoteric) knowledge, particularly in regards to worshipping strange gods and/or gaining abilities not considered as ‘normal’.
Esoteric is a term from the Greek Esoterikos. The term was first applied to the private instructions and doctrines of Pythagoras (circa 580-500 BCE), taught only to a select number of his pupils and not intended or designed for the masses.
Esoteric is opposite to exoteric or public. Esoteric knowledge is hidden, or deeper knowledge, or teachings that are possessed or understood only by a few. It also refers to certain philosophical teachings normally known only to those who have been especially initiated. Information and teachings understood by or meant to be shared with only a select few.
So, are the concepts paranormal and supernatural the same – more or less the same – or completely different? Well, as we can see while most people make no, or very little, distinction between them, these concepts in fact are entirely different and mutually exclusive.
Furthermore, Big Foot, ETs, mermaids, and all such ‘beings’ – if they do exist, or not – would be very much part of our normal realm (2a), and not part of the paranormal realm (2b), and certainly not supernatural (1). They might be imaginary or fantastic, but they certainly would form part of the normal realm nevertheless. However, the situation with angels (1) and demons (3) are different; these beings are not part of our normal realm (2).
Now, when we die it is unlikely that we will go to Hell (3), but then, we won’t be going to Heaven (2) either!
The imaginary is generally taken to mean that something exists only in the mind, not in reality. However, is mind then not an element, a component, of reality? If reality is everything there is, then surely imagination and dreams must also be part of reality.
Wow! What does all this mean to us in terms of our day-to-day living?
There is a confusing plethora of explanations and philosophies to explain everything and our relationship to it all. It just seems to be a matter of perspective as to which point of view is apropos to suit the needs of the wise man and skeptic alike. Thank you for writing this thought provoking article. It was simultaneously enlightening in its scope and terrifying in its implications. What is truth anyway?
I think all of this indicates there are many different philosophies and opinions about what is normal within the history of human perception and what is not. All semantics aside, there is clearly more to our reality, than just what our five well known senses can tell us. Clearly, we have a spiritual component integrated into our conscious/unconscious/physical selves, that when it is not there anymore, the absence of which becomes obvious at death. Therefore, it is a matter of personal interpretation as to which system of beliefs is the most accurate description for any one person's experiences. As a Christian I choose to believe in a heaven and hell, as is well known throughout the various theological literature.
However one believes, it is possible that only one correct version of reality exists, if for no other reason than to keep down the confusion down about this wholly subjective topic. I tend to accept that our confusion comes about from common man's normal inability to not see clearly see all of the various realms in our midst simultaneously, thereby having our vision to the ultimate reality somewhat darkened in our normal waking state of mind.
Lots of food for thought here, Willie. Thanks for tackling this great array of metaphysical, spiritual and physical jargon to try to enlighten us mere mortals. You are to be credited with riding this horse well and blazing a trail of indelible hoof prints across our muddy minds.