The essence of man has always intrigued philosophers. What is that essence? It is so abstract that it seems impossible to put one's finger on it, even conceptually. It seems to elude definition. Yet, for all its other-worldliness, this 'essence' plays such a central role in everything we do. Perhaps one approach to this mystery is to look at the trail man's essence' leaves behind.
(This is the same approach one can use to grasp the concept of God, Who is beyond our intellectual understanding and experience. By recognizing God's impact in history and one's life, we can begin to shape at least a picture of aspects of His attributes. This may not count for much in terms of understanding His Essence, but it certainly is enough to allow us to have a relationship with Him on some level.)
Indeed, words and deeds are the signatures of personality. "It doesn't surprise me that he would say something like that... " or, "It amazes me that she did that..." are valid statements inasmuch as our knowledge of people is obtained by observing their behavior.
Speech and action are the result of all one knows, understands, and accepts as true. If people perform a specific act, ideally, it is because they know (or assume on some level) that doing so helps them along their path towards their goal. It may be mistaken knowledge, but it guides them nonetheless.
(It may also be subconscious knowledge, but, at some point the person picked the idea up and stored it, using it as a point of reference when defining reality around him. Part of the opportunity of life is to be constantly aware of what you know, and how you have come to know it. A person has to constantly evaluate his perception of reality, since people tend to be extremely vulnerable to false notions, and possess the ability to rationalize such notions until they 'appear' to be accurate representations of reality (even though it is obvious to others that the person's behavior is self-destructive). In fact, this is the role of the yetzer hara (man's inherent inclination towards meaninglessness): to provide an opposing viewpoint that can be subtly incorrect, forcing us to be wise in our decisions and thereby maximize our intellectual capacity and our opportunities to make free-will decisions.)
If action, a product of knowledge, exposes (Perhaps what is most humiliating about being 'caught in the act' is that who we truly are becomes revealed to othersunless of course you have a good excuse for what you did') the self, then self itself is a function of awareness. This certainly becomes apparent when you consider the effect of Alzheimer's Disease, a disease that severely impairs memory function. Families, tragically enough, watch their loved ones lose all sense of self as their base of knowledge vanishes.
While this concept of self is still very abstract, it does nevertheless begin to reveal what we are dealing with. It seems as if self is determined by accumulated knowledge, ideas which are collected, either from others or from experience, analysed for their meaning to some degree, and then filed for future reference.
Every conscious moment, a person is confronted with a new reality, forcing the mind to interpret that reality in order to determine an appropriate response to it. The mind, quite miraculously, quickly scans all the information available to it and pieces together what it judges to be an acceptable analysis of what the individual is experiencing. The individual then responds to that particular reality based upon that previously stored information.
If the mind misinterprets what is occurring (which happens far more often than people care to acknowledge), it is because it has limited or incorrect information to draw upon. Sensitivity, the key ingredient to accurately relating to realities and opportunities, is the direct result of awareness, which in turn is a direct result of integrated knowledge.
It is not enough just to learn an idea. For a concept to become part of one's consciousness to the extent that it can stimulate a particular response at the spur of the moment, it must be fully integrated; it must be 'available' information. (The 'integration' itself is part of the process of creating self and leads to an even more profound understanding of the idea, and a deeper relationship to it.)
To be aware of an idea is not necessarily to know the idea and all its implications. The former can be achieved by simply reading a book and remembering what you read. The latter requires in-depth probing into the meaning of a concept. The more sophisticated the idea, the more this is so.
The more spiritual an idea is, the more abstract and sophisticated it is, and the more one needs to think about it. What the idea appears to express on the surface may not at all be the message behind the idea, and only serious contemplation and analysis can reveal its hidden meaning.
You graciously endow man with wisdom and teach insight to a frail mortal. Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, insight, and discernment...There are three levels of knowing an idea: dayah, binah, and haskel-wisdom, insight and discernment. The first level is quite automatic and results from exposure to a concept, such as, telling a child to look both ways before crossing the road. At this level, the child could repeat the words on his own, but he won't necessarily understand why he should follow these instructions.
(From the daily Shemonah Esrai prayer.)
If you explain to the child, "Because, if you don't look both ways before crossing the road, you may not see a car coming down the street, and God forbid, it can hit you!" That means something to the child, which means he has achieved binah, level two knowledge. On the other hand, if he is not quite aware of the damage a car could do to him, he may still not fully grasp the importance of the idea.
How does the knowledge become real to him. It can happen in one of two ways. Either the child could have a near accident, or the parent can describe the consequences of not looking both ways before crossing the road.
As the child is given more insights, the essential knowledge that he must look both ways before crossing the road becomes more fully integrated (haskel). The concept is made less abstract to the child by defining it in terms that the child can relate to, that is, in terms of pain, suffering, hospitals, no more playing, etc... The child now knows.
The child will grow to become an adult and may face more complex ideas, but the process of gaining and integrating knowledge is unchanging. Ideas are first identified, and then analyzed. The depth to which a person examines and understands an idea is the extent to which that person will become intellectually sensitive to the idea's importance.
The level of discernment is the highest level of all because a person must know an idea thoroughly to the point of conscious usage. That is why 'learning for the sake of doing (Ethics of the Fathers. The first level of learning is learning for the sake of learning (dayah). Next is learning for the sake of teaching (binah), although even though you must understand the idea to teach it, it can still be quite theoretical to the teacher. Learning on the condition to do (haskel) requires a complete understanding of the idea if it is to be properly put into practice.) is the highest level of learning-it requires you to know the idea intimately. To discern is to be able to compare this idea to other ideas, to be able to understand all of it's nuances in any given reality.
(The Talmudic process is to introduce an idea and to gain a deep understanding of it by intellectually dissecting it. Often the idea will be compared to other similar ideas to determine subtle distinctions. Other times, real or hypothetical situations are devised to "test" the limits of a particular concept in question.) To what end do we attempt to know ideas so profoundly? It is by being one with a truth that we are able to live according to a heightened awareness. It is on this level that ideas impact our lives, and help us along our way in creating self.