My conversation with Dr. Stephanie Shorter on the relationships, science and spirituality.
Stephanie: What is the most frequent concern that you get asked about in your counseling work?
Renu: It’s relationship issues, hands down, that brings most people to me, as it is the source of most conflict and suffering. Relationship compatibility and understanding the dynamics and karma of relationships is probably the most sophisticated aspect of Yoga philosophy and Vedic Astrology. I find it is as relevant today it was thousands of years ago.
Stephanie: We all have had our share of relationship difficulties and problems. The yearning for the ideal mate – which is a universal, one of the most fundamental human desires – can be so difficult to fulfill.
Renu: In India, there is a funny ancient tradition that is still alive today. If someone has very difficult relationship karma in their horoscope, the priest will perform a marriage ceremony between the person and an inanimate object, like a pineapple or banana tree, as a remedy to get the first marriage over and done with. While this sounds really silly, it has significance if you do it properly and with reverence, you are accepting the responsibility of the burden of your difficult relationship karma. So, hopefully you will work harder in your relationship because of it. Karma, or the hand that you are dealt, is somewhat pre-determined in Yogic philosophy but remedies such as this one are offered to embrace and overcome karmic hurdles. That’s what makes Vedic Astrology work.
Stephanie: Hmm, I might have done better marrying a banana tree in 2001, but that’s another story for another time…
The Yogic approach to love and marriage is in stark contrast to our romantic idealism about love in the west, with many studies consistently showing that over 90% of Americans believe that they have a soul mate that they are meant to be with – that one special person. It certainly explains why movies like ‘The Notebook’ are such popular tearjerkers – it’s getting right down to the core of our deepest wishes to be loved.
Renu: Well, romance is a universal phenomena in movies and stories. In the Indian Bollywood movies, almost a hundred percent of the movies rest on the theme of boy meets girl, they fall in love, and drama ensues as a result of the the families refusing to allow the union.
In the Vedic tradition, relationships are considered akin to the theological union symbolized by Shiva and Shakti (the masculine and feminine aspect of the divine) and their symbiotic love. In other words, a serious relationship is more a spiritual path requiring sacrifice and surrender than a romantic fulfillment. That explains why marriages in India have been arranged by parents for thousands of years and matched for compatibility by astrologers.
Stephanie: I can see it from a pragmatic/cultural perspective but, on an emotional/personal level, it seems like it would be so awkward entering into marriage with someone you barely know. As an American, that is hard to imagine. Was your marriage arranged?
Renu: No, mine was anything but arranged. In fact, I got married under a very difficult Saturn transit to my seventh (relationship) house. My husband’s family refused to give consent. Marriage for Indians is between families and not just between a couple, so it was a very difficult situation for both families. Frankly, I am too westernized to consider an arranged marriage for myself or my children.
Stephanie: That was long before you started as a Vedic Astrologer, right? Obviously, you’ve learned thing or two about compatibility along the way – being married for 30+ years and being a counselor for many of those years.
Compatibility in western culture emphasizes similarity, like two peas in a pod. It seems that many people seek a partner who is very similar to them, but the raw truth is that someone who is just like us pushes our buttons. Do we really want the mirror image of our own crazy?!
Many couples meet online now and the compatibility algorithms of sites like match.com are all about pairing two people with the same traits. What would the match.com of Vedic Astrology look like?
Renu: Naturally, we all seek out the ideal partner as someone who is like me, has the same likes, appreciates the same flavors of life, and understands ‘me’. However, in Vedic Astrology, the unconscious drive of humans is believed to be wholeness and integration, so without even realizing it we are seeking out those characteristics in our partners that we have not yet harmonized within ourselves. In other words, we unconsciously reach for the opposite in our partners. Based on that premise, whether we have an arranged marriage or find a partner of our own choosing, we are most likely to end up with someone who at the core level is ‘not like me’, as the karma dictates in the horoscope.
Stephanie: This unconscious reaching for our opposite is also related to biological mechanisms of attraction. Information from our sensory systems that we may not be aware of or we can’t articulate still very much drives our behavior.
Anatomically, the olfactory center of the primate brain nestles right up against the emotional center, so we’d expect there to be rich communication between smell and attraction.
There are interesting behavioral studies done by social scientists that show that, as much as we try to mask our body smells with deodorants and perfumes, that natural smell gets out there and is detected and acted upon by the opposite sex. Women rate the attractiveness of a man by the scent of his sweat. Men are more likely to ask for a woman’s number based on body scent and on menstrual cycle. In fact, one study even quantified this with money: a lap dancer who is ovulating makes twice the amount in tips as a dancer who is menstruating!
Renu: One of the indications we look for in Vedic Astrology compatibility is if the primal/instinctive nature of the two people is compatible because during intense experiences, including sex, people turn to this part of themselves. The better this aspect of compatibility between the couple, the better they can act together and bond through intense situations and crisis. Perhaps this is one of the indicators of biological attraction.
Stephanie: I can’t help but recall some cool studies that have come out of an immunogenetics lab in Brazil. The gist of their research is that people with diverse genes are likely to choose each other as mates, and that genetic diversity is detectable by smell. This lab studies what is called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a large section of chromosome 6, which is similar across most vertebrate species. In terms of reproductive success, it makes sense to have a mate that has different genetic material than you. An MHC-dissimilar couple is more likely to produce healthy offspring with efficient immune systems and this is the case across a number of species that have been tested.
In one study, this group compared MHC diversity between married couples and a control group of people that they paired up by chance. If MHC diversity plays a role in choosing a mate in humans, the married couples should have more diverse MHC genes than the control group, and this is exactly what the researchers found.
The MHC genotype impacts the strength of our immune systems, and interestingly enough, also influences mating selection through preference for certain body odors. Taking birth control pills changes a woman’s smell preference for men that she rates as attractive.
Smell is a reliable way of determining genetic compatibility (someone who is different from me) and planning for healthy kids. Pretty amazing, right?
Renu: That’s fascinating. In Vedic Astrology, while the whole chart is involved, the main story of our relationship karma resides in the opposing forces of the ascendant (first house) and descendant (seventh house). The ascendant is the persona we walk around with – ‘this is who I am’ – and the descendant is ‘who I am not’. In other words, what we discard as “not me” is what we end up getting in a partner. So for example, the male energy always seeks out the female energy, even in same sex couples.
Stephanie: Genetics aside, culture comes back into the picture. The fact is that we tend to live near and interact with people who are of similar age, education, ethnicity, etc. So demographics – at least out of convenience if not consciously out of choice – are often the same in a relationship.
Renu: Yes, of course, ethnicity, education, culture, economics, etc. are important markers for relationship success as they make it easier to navigate a relationship. These fundamental demographic similarities are already taken into account before the horoscopes are consulted for compatibility. Vedic Astrology is looking for the deeper, more subtle aspect of a long-term relationship, which shows that two people have some type of karma to work through in this lifetime – some ancient law of attraction. That is what will keep them together despite the difficulties they might endure along the way. Maybe the Vedic seers who gave us this system understood the MHC-dissimilar success of a couple in a different way!
Stephanie: I’m a feminist so I want to be very careful in the phrasing of this next thing I say. I’m not at all suggesting that women should downplay their strengths…
There was this study published about a year ago from a psychology lab at the University of Texas. It was perfect fodder for a stand-up comic or the creative journalist who described the study as proof that “men are hard-wired to act like dicks”. Men were shown photos of women and asked to rate how attractive they were. The photos of women that conveyed some sort of psychological vulnerability – not very intelligent or capable, more easily exploitable – were rated as the most attractive. Basically, if the men could play the hero to this damsel in distress, they were more interested in her. We could talk about sexism or we could talk about how nature has hard-wired us. I have heard you talk about the influence of the masculine solar energies and feminine lunar energies in relationship success. I wonder if there is some connection here.
Renu: Yes, the feminine and masculine energies of the Sun and the Moon in the horoscope have naturally different inclinations. The ‘square-shaped’ Sun is described as steadfast, consistent, and able to take determined action. In contrast, the ‘round-bodied’ Moon is pliable, flexible, vulnerable and changes direction and shape easily. While our solar nature responds to permanence and sticks to its principles, our lunar nature responds to feelings and emotions and is rather defenseless and exposed. A relationship between two people naturally inclines the more solar-energized person to be drawn to the lunar-energized person to find balance. From the Vedic Astrology perspective, this is the law of Karma and the partner you attract, regardless of circumstances, will be dominated by the energy you are deficient in. The less balanced your masculine or feminine energies, the more extreme partners will come into your life. Men are biologically dominated by higher testosterone levels and are naturally more inclined to exhibit solar characteristics, and women are dominated by by estrogen, making them more lunar, which might explain the strange and rather disturbing results of men seeking out the “damsels in distress”.
The secret to attracting the best partner is to first work on inner integration of our Sun and Moon – i.e., a balance of our emotions and our principled actions. The more whole and well rounded we are, the more likely we are to end up with someone who is also more whole.
Stephanie: I saw a store recently when we were in Houston that was called ‘What Women Want’. It’s an open invite to men: come in and let us do the thinking for you. You may have absolutely no idea, but we know what she wants. Our culture plays up the misunderstanding between the sexes.
That’s funny but probably not that far from the truth. Few people understand the opposite sex. Men and women have entirely different wiring – its almost nature’s hoax.
Renu: While our karma, and as some of the studies you pointed out show with our biological instincts also, might be seeking out the opposite traits in a partner, our human emotions naturally seek out someone who is like us. It’s not like anyone wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to be with someone who has nothing in common with me”. When we go deep into any subject in Yogic thought, we realize that many of the solutions to our life problems are counter-intuitive – such as sit still to build strength in Yoga, let go of your desperation for success to succeed, or in the case of relationships, embrace that which you find so painfully ‘not you’ in your partner to create a successful relationship.