Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between a “mental seeking” and a “living spiritual experience”. While those who are intellectually-minded frequently confuse ‘knowing’ with “KNOWING”, there is actually a clear distinction between the ability to read, hear, memorize and repeat back a teaching, which occurs in the mind. There is a famous proverb that one can read all the books about swimming and ‘know’ how to swim intellectually, but that does not mean one will actually be able to swim when thrown into the water.
A story from the Mahabharata illustrates this clearly. When the famous teacher Dronacharya was educating the princes of the kingdom, he one day stated that the lesson of the day was ‘not to become angry’. The first 104 princes (100 Kauravas and 4 of the Pandavas) said they understood the lesson, but the eldest, the future king/emperor Yudhisthira demurred and said he had not yet understood. This went on for several days until final a frustrated Dronacharya struck Yudhishthira. Note that striking the future king was considered to be punished by death! At that moment, however, Yudhisthira indicated he had now understood the lesson! For him it was not just an intellectual exercise. He needed the opportunity to put the lesson into practice and make it a living spiritual experience active in his being.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “You have asked what is the discipline to be followed in order to convert the mental seeking into a living spiritual experience. The first necessity is the practice of concentration of your consciousness within yourself. The ordinary human mind has an activity on the surface which veils the real Self. But there is another, a hidden consciousness within behind the surface one in which we can become aware of the real Self and of a larger deeper truth of nature, can realise the Self and liberate and transform the nature. To quiet the surface mind and begin to live within is the object of this concentration. Of this true consciousness other than the superficial there are two main centres, one in the heart (not the physical heart, but the cardiac centre in the middle of the chest), one in the head. The concentration in the heart opens within and by following this inward opening and going deep one becomes aware of the soul or psychic being, the divine element in the individual. This being unveiled begins to come forward, to govern the nature, to turn it and all its movements towards the Truth, towards the Divine, and to call down into it all that is above. It brings the consciousness of the Presence, the dedication of the being to the Highest and invites the descent into our nature of a greater Force and Consciousness which is waiting above us. To concentrate in the heart centre with the offering of oneself to the Divine and the aspiration for this inward opening and for the Presence in the heart is the first way and, if it can be done, the natural beginning; for its result once obtained makes the spiritual path far more easy and safe than if one begins the other way.”
Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Exercises for Growth and Mastery, Awakening the Inner Consciousness, pp. 134-138