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 this concept must be contextualized and adjusted for use in modern, daily life.
Suffering in the practical Buddhist sense is essentially just ‘challenge‘, as in Life is Challenging. Or, The Essence of Life is Difficulty. This effectively means that life presents a perpetual series of 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 challenge and difficulty 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 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 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.
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 fully accepting this as an unavoidable truth. ‘Acceptance’ will serve to generally diminish the significant emotional and physical stress associated with daily challenges & difficulties.
So the path to decreased suffering essentially begins with acknowledging, understanding, and accepting the concept of “suffering”.
We cannot control everything. We have biological needs that must be met in order to survive. And we 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. 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 functionally and emotionally, in order to adapt to various needs and live in accord with others and environments that are in constant states of change is the essence of suffering. But again, suffering in this context is generally not misery or agony, only difficulty or challenge, or even just basic accommodation.
The more a person can understand and accept the state of “suffering”, the less actual suffering (as in agony, misery, or intense pain & discomfort) he or she will experience.
The importance of understanding this concept is for expanding and engaging one’s awareness and acceptance of practical reality. 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 life without being in a constant state of resistance. We can consciously adapt and embrace change and not add stress to stress.