The first time I encountered having someone be present and hold space for me deeply was in Bodhgaya, India. I was in a personal crisis at the time, and didn’t feel emotionally supported by anyone. At the monastery I was staying in, I started chatting with a Buddhist nun from Taiwan. As I spoke about why I happened to be in such a remote place on the other side of the world, the nun dropped everything she was doing and sat by my side, listening to me. I couldn’t stop talking or crying, and it felt like there was so much pent up inside of me that nobody had bothered to hear for years and years. Even when my life had totally fallen apart, still nobody was willing to listen and understand. Yet here was a stranger who could sit and be present to all the pain and suffering that I felt. I had never felt this depth of presence before. I noticed the bright afternoon sun transition into dusk and evening, and worried that I was taking up too much of the nun’s time and space. She was free of all apparent concerns, and only assured me not to worry, that this was more important at the moment. For years after that, even when I felt I had nowhere to turn, I could draw on this memory of being so fully heard.

Having experienced the power and effectiveness of presence, I wanted to do this for others in my own healing work as a practitioner of Asian medicine. I sought to be as present for others as much as possible, and wanted people to be able to express themselves fully when working with me, regardless of whether they’re male or female, young or old, from whatever racial or ethnic background. I thought this is equality.

In my work, I noticed how in particular, women are hungry for this type of experience, where someone is totally present for them, validating their emotions and words, listening to and seeing them fully as they express themselves. This is not just listening on a mental, analytical level. This is listening with one’s full being.

However, through working with Neil, I started to look more deeply and specifically at how I was applying this method, especially from my angle as a female practitioner. I started to realize that though this has been extremely powerful for me in my own healing process, I needed to reconsider my gender-neutral application of this method with no regard for whether someone is male or female.

During one of my sessions with Neil, he mentioned that from his perspective as a man, me holding space for him to be seen and heard fully is not what he most benefits from. Neil said he benefits the most from my active support in his life purpose and honestly reflecting back to him my feelings to continually help him clarify his presence and purpose. I was pretty taken aback by this, because I have not met a man before who is interested in the full expression of my feelings. Most of my experiences with men have involved a shutting-down or dampening of my feelings, where it even led me to doubt or discount myself. I have not met men before who were interested in a true reflection back to them, because there could be things in the reflection that are uncomfortable to face.

In the nearly two years that I have known Neil, I have brought to him questions on whether he was safe to be around, feedback on confusion surrounding aspects of his work, and touched on certain inter-relational dynamics in his life that could be looked into. These are usually difficult topics for anyone to hear, but Neil never got offended, actually wanted to listen, and quickly took action on anything we talked about. He never tried to block my expression or make me question the validity of my feelings. I think it takes humility to be willing to hear things like this from another person, and I truly appreciate the chance to experience his approach.

In our discussion together, Neil said he felt that the holding space and witnessing capacity is a masculine one, whereas the expressing and being-witnessed capacity is feminine. I wondered if this was just unique to Neil, or if this might be a general rule-of-thumb that differed between men and women. After all, based on my own experience with how genuine presence itself can be so healing, I had thought it’d be effective for anyone to have me be very present for them, witnessing their expression.

After Neil and I talked that day, I met with a male friend, and wanted to test this out. While observing the situation closely, I tried being present for him and giving him the opportunity to express whatever he would want to express. He humored me for a bit, but eventually communicated that it isn’t really the approach for him. It seems that for him and Neil, what’s been most helpful is my belief in their value, work, and purpose, holding them accountable to be the best that they can be, as well as actively doing things in the real world that have helped to manifest their work further.

I was really surprised! It’s possible that something I would have craved so much and found so deeply healing as a woman, may not be the same for everyone across the board!

It was then that I started reflecting back on my male patients and realized that trying to hold space for them in that way might not have been the highlight of them working with me. I always thought they were just not comfortable to do it yet, but I now see there could be a real difference here in what men and women find generally nourishing and healing. To be honest with myself, I think on the soft/emotional side my male patients have appreciated being genuinely cared for. On the hard/technical side they value the herbs and acupuncture that benefited their health. But they didn’t particularly need me to be silently present, shining the light of my attention on them so they can feel safe to express all their feelings in my presence. I realized this might actually be what women more deeply want to experience — this total safety and free expression.

For years, I often carried out the role of holding space for others, being present, seeing and hearing them as much as I could. As I realize this to be a masculine role that I am happy to fulfill when appropriate, it’s also a relief to realize that this might not need to be my main role all the time. I hope more men will step up to do this for the women in their lives, as there are so many women out there who would benefit from it (and this in turn will really all come back to benefit the men who choose to serve in this way!). I feel that it’s time to more efficiently utilize my inherently feminine nature in my work, and not always feel the need to be in the masculine element predominantly. Of course I will always continue to be as present and focused in my work with others as possible, but I can allow my feminine nature to shine more of the time, which is through actively reflecting and expressing what I sense to others as well as guiding them to achieve their best potential. It’s coming back to what feels natural for me as a female. For so long, our feminine expression has been stifled and discounted because it seems irrational and “too much.” We feel and psychically tune into more than what the logical, rational mind can conceive of, and that can seem threatening at times.

I am really grateful for the Buddhist nun I met in India who put aside everything in that moment, just to be present for me and show such a nonjudgmental and compassionate acceptance for all that I was going through at the time. It showed me that such a thing even exists in this world, and motivated me to emulate her service. It showed me that when called upon, anyone – whether male or female – can step up to fulfill this role of being deeply present for and witnessing the expression of another. I’m also really grateful that Neil has shown up to teach me that by nature, this is a service that the masculine is here to provide for the feminine. Based on our natural polarity, there are ways we can serve each other that are most efficient for how our energies are running in our bodies and minds in this embodied lifetime.

Sometimes in this age, I feel like there appears like there are only two choices available. One is to forcefully contrive what it means to be a man or woman and be held to rigid roles. The other is to completely walk away from this rigid perspective, disregarding the biological and energetic differences between the male and female physiologies altogether, Perhaps there is a middle way, which honors the natural tendencies of the embodied form that our souls have chosen to incarnate in this lifetime. Without adhering to any role in a rigid and unconscious way, we can learn to understand the natural energy flow within our bodies to truly feel what is nourishing and healing for ourselves and for our communities.

Dr. Julia Lee, DACM, L.Ac. runs her acupuncture clinic The Precise Needle in San Jose, California and also delivers valuable in-person lectures and webinars focused on healing.