Many life lessons, wise sayings, guiding principles, adages etc comprise two layers of understanding: intellectual and experiential.
We might know or understand such principles intellectually, recognize that they are factual and sound, yet have difficulty putting them into practice. We might remember and be able to articulate the meaning, significance and interpretation, but struggle to manifest them. Despite what we know and understand intellectually, we still often find our automatic behaviors and emotional responses leading us down a different path.
Yet, a deeper level of understanding emerges— an experiential understanding, often triggered by a transformative event. Following such an event, we might remember that indeed we did know the principle in question before, but do now resonate with it in a manner that we did not then. It is as if we had grasped the lesson previously but for the first time we are witnessing a different, more holistic understanding. As if, in this moment, a facet of our experience - in the body, has come into contact and connected with our preexisting knowledge, resulting in a reification of the lesson.
Here is an illustration that captures the contrast between this intellectual understanding and experiential understanding, with two scenarios: advertent and inadvertent understanding.
Inadvertent: You might be familiar with the notion that failure and adversity are the darkness through which light enters our lives, often shared through well-known proverbs like "every cloud has a silver lining." This belief, passed down through generations, resonates in you as a timeless moral lesson. However, when confronted with a significant life challenge, embracing this perspective can be challenging. Once you've overcome the obstacle, though, you may look back at what you learnt in the adversity and suddenly, the quote that once seemed cliché resonates with a newfound depth, echoing your own journey. You embody the essence of the proverb, your understanding now grounded in lived experience. You now, though inadvertently, understand it experientially.
Advertent: You might be aware that multiple studies show journaling as an invaluable exercise, that fosters clear thinking and self-awareness. Your mind understands the concept, but your body does not yet. Hence consistent journaling remains a challenge. However, at a later point in time, urged by curiosity or external circumstances, you take up journaling. The ensuing benefits become evident in time, to the extent that you fully embrace the practice and develop a consistent journaling habit. Your understanding of its significance becomes deeply rooted in personal experience. You now, advertently, understand it experientially.
In both scenarios, the principle undergoes a transformation—shifting from a mere mental understanding to a more profound embodiment, an understanding that resonates within you at a deeper level. From something you understood in your mind into something you, dare I say, understand in your body. Perhaps reason why the word is "embody." In the end, such adages that do survive generations surely do so because many people inevitably experience their embodiment, through events that resonate deeply with the essence of these sayings.
It seems true the other way around too. Someone explains a belief or idea to you and it is as if the knowledge they share aligns seamlessly with a truth you already hold within your body - your being. Their intellectual understanding resonates with your experiential understanding. It instantly resonates on a deeper level leaving a profound impact. Exchanging experiences among people who share a common experiential understanding of a given subject (e.g. pain, pleasure, a hobby etc) often feels remarkably effortless, in comparison to interactions with those who merely understand the subject. You feel they get you. There's a sense of them truly grasping your perspective, often even before fully articulating it.
An analogy I came across that beautifully captures this distinction is the idea that grasping a concept intellectually ("intellectual understanding") and grasping it on a visceral level ("experiential understanding") are akin to pieces of a puzzle. Initially, intellectual understanding gives us a piece. Other pieces fall into place as we encounter relevant related experiences in the course of day-to-day life. Eventually as we put together sufficient pieces, a transformation occurs and the lesson, despite being previously known or even understood, becomes a profound inner wisdom - often in an aha moment.
A friend shared an interesting suggestion: that this contrast between intellectual and experiential understanding might represent the divide between intelligence and wisdom - on the given subject. It could also be the divide between understanding in the mind and in the body, between understanding mentally and embodied understanding - through lived experiences. Or perhaps between between a principle and a lesson.