Several years ago, when in India, I went to a fruit-vender stand along the road in Rishikesh, near my meditation teacher's ashram, to buy some oranges for snacks. In that part of India, oranges are a lot different from the oranges available in Los Angeles where I live. They're all puffy looking, with lose skin, and often the flesh is shrunken and not very sweet. So, standing there, looking at the pile of puffy oranges, I didn't know which to buy.
It just so happened that a dear woman Swami from the Himalayan Tradition, Ma Seva Bharati, was also picking out fruit from the same fruit stand just then, and I asked her how to choose oranges, hoping for some advice. She said, "pick out some oranges and eat them, and then you'll know how to choose good ones."
I felt frustrated by her response. It was only later that I realized her guidance had been strictly in line with the yoga tradition and that her intent was to strengthen my ability to make discriminations. To a teacher in the tradition, it's more important to help a student grow than to satisfy their wishes.
So why did Swami Ma Seva say that to me? Her teacher, Swami Rama, the great Himalayan master, often said that true knowledge comes from direct experience, and Ma Seva was prompting me to get that direct experience. To truly know, we have to have direct experience. Otherwise, if we listen to what others say, we just have information.
Sometimes, without direct experience, we can't understand something at all, as in this story: A man from a country where they have no sweet food visits a country where people love sweets. Hearing several people say the word "sweets", the foreigner becomes curious, politely approaches a local woman in the town square, and says, "Please excuse me. I am from a different country and never heard the word sweets before. Please tell me, what is this sweets I keep hearing people here talking about?" The woman says "oh sweets are delicious, they're so sweet." "But," says the foreigner, "what is sweet?" The lady struggles to find a way to describe what sweets are, and finally says, "well, they're sweet!", to which the foreigner again asks the same question. Finally, she invites the foreigner to her dessert shop, seats him at a table, and serves him several different sweets: a sweet cake, a bowl of sweet custard, and very sweet pie covered with powdered sugar. Soon, a big smile appears on the foreigner's face. He tells woman that he likes sweets, and understands, now, that "sweet" is the element common to all sweets.
So some things, such as sweetness, can't be known at all except by direct experience.
There are other things that can be described and to some extend understood without direct experience. We can learn about the looks and habits of animals that live in the forest, or about stars in space, or about how to build a boat from reading books, for example. When learning happens in this way, we can say we have information.
Many people are filled up to the brim with such information and believe they understand reality. But information is not the same as experiential knowledge. Information describes reality and is not the reality itself, which is much greater than any description. So information always falls short of experiencing the actual reality. It's one thing to read a book on how to bake a cake, and an entirely different thing to actually bake the cake and have it turn out well.
Theoretical information can give us an entry, a place to start. But true knowledge comes from experience. Knowledge based on experience is much richer and more complete than is information contained in any book.
Then there are other situations where words or images describe apparent realities that don't even exist. This is the realm of imagination and illusion, which is harmless when we are aware that we are engaging in fantasy, as when we go to a movie. Yet, it's also true that ideas-not-based-on-reality can subtly slip into our thinking and cause us trouble. Whenever we believe what others tell us, without having direct experience ourselves of what we are told and are believing, we are vulnerable to this error. This is often the case, for example, when people grow up among others with prejudices, and end up carrying these prejudices into their adult lives. It would not take much direct experience to demolish their prejudices, but they have to be willing to know the truth, and often we cling to our beliefs unquestioningly. Living with such prejudices causes us to behave contrary to reality, and whenever we do that, we're in for trouble.
In the current "information age", where so much information is available at our fingertips, it's particularly easy to confuse information and illusion for reality, and it's crucial to remember that all information is virtual reality, and not reality itself. No matter how much information we have, we still need direct experience to really know and to have a foundation upon which to live.
This is why Swami Ma Seva told me to buy some oranges and eat them. There is no substitute for direct experience.