One of the central tenets in Buddhism is ‘The Essence of Life is Suffering‘. This term “suffering” is confusing for a lot of people and thus many people immediately ignore it or disagree with it and write it off. But the concept must be contextualized and adjusted for use in modern, daily life for it to make sense and apply.
Suffering in the practical Buddhist sense is essentially just ‘unsatisfactoriness‘, as in Life Consistently Presents Unsatisfying Conditions. Or even, The Essence of Life is Challenge. This effectively means that life presents a perpetual series of unsatisfied needs and challenges, to varying degrees, which can be fundamentally interpreted as requirements of effort, or necessary expenditures of energy.
The concept of suffering in Buddhist application does not mean life is misery, or life is agony. It simply means that every human must experience dissatisfaction and challenge, to varying degrees, on an almost daily basis and throughout his or her life, and thus our individual human existence continuously involves some degree of undesired effort. Pure survival requires exerting energy for things that are not particularly enjoyable or relaxing.
Moreover, “suffering” in practical consideration involves a consistently necessary exertion of energy to 1) Meet primary needs, like maintaining health and functional autonomy; and 2) Manage our relationships with people and environments that are in constant states of change.
Since everyone and everything, including ourselves, is in a constant state of change (most of which is incredibly gradual and imperceptible) we are required to continuously adapt, and adaptation takes effort, even if it’s minor and unconscious. Effort, or applied energy, is often inconvenient or stressful, ranging from slightly uncomfortable to extremely taxing or painful.
So the application of the Buddhist concept of “The essence of life is suffering” is for the purpose of acknowledging life’s perpetual challenges & difficulties, understanding why this type of suffering is inevitable, and ultimately fully accepting this as an unavoidable truth.
Acceptance will serve to generally diminish the significant emotional and physical stress associated with daily challenges & difficulties. Resistance to unchangeable pain or discomfort, in all shapes and forms, will prolong stress and dissatisfaction, i.e. suffering.
We cannot control everything. We have biological needs that must be met in order to survive. In addition, we also have psychological, social, and cultural needs that must be met in order to function in society, especially if we want to thrive in life.
We must find food and make time for sleep and we must maintain shelter, and so on. We must feel things we don’t want to feel. We must do things we don’t want to do. And this is basic “suffering”.
Our continuous accommodation, both physically and mentally, in order to adapt to various needs and live in accord with others and environments that are also in constant states of change is the essence of suffering. But again, suffering in this context is generally not misery or agony, only our reactive dissatisfaction difficulty or challenge, or even just basic accommodation.
So from a basic Buddhist perspective, the more a person can understand and accept this concept of inevitable “suffering”, rather than deny and resist it, the less actual suffering (as in agony, misery, or intense pain & discomfort) he or she will experience.
The importance of understanding this concept is to engage one’s awareness and acceptance of practical reality: to see the truth of the human condition, and consciously adapt to it. If we can remain consciously aware of the fact that life will never be free of challenges, that we will always be required to make efforts that aren’t perfectly easy or convenient or enjoyable, then we can regularly accept reality as it is and engage in daily life without being in a constant state of resistance. We can consciously adapt and embrace change and not add stress to stress.