Photographs courtesy Robert Bridges. See more of his beautiful work at his online studios at www.RBridgesImagery.com and esty.

Tell us about a deep soul connection that you’ve experienced. I spent a few sessions with a dharma teacher – exploring. Learning how to use the teachings and how to watch and relate to the conditions of our minds and hearts and changing the way we relate to ourselves. The dharma teacher I was drawn to is a person who radiates loving-kindness and deep compassion. She was perfect for me. She gave me a priceless gift. She mirrored to me the boundless love, depth, gentleness, kindness and holding of the noble heart… of mine… hers… all of us. I realized that, in doing so, she had shown me that the love I had always desired and never felt worthy of was inside of me and all I had to do was remember and open to it and allow self to be held in abiding love.

What was one of the most soul-opening moments of your life? I was 27 years old, recently divorced, unemployed, and feeling that I had totally blown my first shot at the American dream. I was hiding out in grad school getting a Master’s in Counseling, exploring psychotherapy trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. One warm spring night I went to the drive-in movie by myself and I’m watching Rocky. When the moment arises and Sly is stumbling around bloody and victorious and bellowing “Adrian… Adrian,” something broke inside of me. As if those words were a port key, I was instantly in another place and space.

A female voice spoke: “You are accepted,” she said, and a joy of great intensity welled up and just started flowing through me. Next thing I knew I was standing in the desert and I saw myself as a multifaceted jewel turning and glowing in the sun. Then I was back in my Toyota. I was bawling just like Rocky and have no clue how I made it home. I believe grace was with me for had I been pulled over I’m sure I would have spent the night under observation somewhere.

A few days later I was standing in line at a cafeteria with my family for Sunday lunch. Out of the blue I hear a male voice: “Robert, if you are going to live your own life you must leave.” “Where?” I asked without hesitation. “Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake.”  Two days later I started to pack. I ended up in Albuquerque where I met my partner—and 31 years later we are still together.

For several years I stumbled, drifting with no real direction, no moral compass and very little foundation. I never seemed to settle into one career. Moving from the city to fly-over country – moving into huge spaces and cloudless skies encouraged us both to open. In many ways I did pretty well for a guy who was stumbling around and it only took me another 30 years or so to complete the circle of what that “Rocky” vision revealed. The missing link was learning to accept and love my self, and as I do that more becomes revealed and appreciated. I was a seeker and about five or six years ago I found a path that speaks to me – photography and Vipassana Buddhism.

When do you feel your most soulful? I approach photography as a sacred art and it has become a contemplative practice based on a form of concentration and seeing with the heart. The camera becomes a magical tool opening a gateway; creating a refuge; becoming a mental discipline; and a spiritual practice – it is a path with heart and a path of knowing. I photograph flowers and trees and when in the city I like to walk around and allow discoveries to find me.

Trees and quiet spaces were my earliest refuge. Growing up in the midwest gardens, parks, cemeteries, riverbanks, fields, and hilly places were where I went to replenish myself.  Now in my sixties I still hang in gardens, cemeteries, fields, riverbanks and ocean shorelines. Often when sitting in a flower patch or walking a grassy slope, a shaft of light will appear and something beautiful will light up and frequently when that occurs, I experience joy, love, delight, and grace. I currently believe that these experiences happen more often because each time I go to seek refuge with my camera, I make it a point to stop – experience the pace of the space — breathe – reflect briefly on how grateful I am to be standing. Yes, standing in a place of stillness and beauty and — and say thank you to the universe. So, clearly when I am photographing I am in a space where I tend to feel soulful – and expansive of heart and mind.

Who is one of the most soulful people you’ve ever known? I am finding that being kind to self generates ripples which often translates into being kind to others – a kind of “pass it forward” idea that happens every day on multiple levels if we open to that – if we open to seeing the noble heart in others and don’t forget to appreciate our own noble heart too. So when I tried to answer this question about a very soulful person I’ve met or known, I can’t seem to name a soul I would single out for that distinction.  Instead, what my experience shows – when I am present and engaged, then the last person I was with is the most soulful person I’ve known. Being engaged, curious, present, generous, compassionate, having the intention to be open and authentic, and the willingness to be vulnerable are all heart qualities of the soulful people I know and I aspire to.

What do you feel your soul’s purpose is? This question translates into what are my core aspirations, and what is my heart’s deepest desire. For me, for now those things mean simply to be kind to people, to see through the conditions and conditioning we all operate within to a perceive a larger truth about what a human being really is — which, I think, is something along the lines of what Thomas Merton described when he said, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach. If only we could see each other that way – there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty or greed… I suppose the big problem would be that we would all fall down and worship each other.”

So, I don’t think I have a purpose – certainly not a special one. I live by faith. This may sound odd for a self-proclaimed Buddhist to say. And to be fair and honest I haven’t thrown all of Christianity out. There is a saying attributed to Jesus that speaks, “Lest you become as little children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Through Buddhism I am learning how to open my heart to self, others and world and in doing so I have become more like a child – our hearts — when we are children are pure and innocent. Learning to see through the eyes of a child is one of my contemplative and artistic practices. I think when it’s time to take my last breath the only questions I might ask of myself are: Did I love? Was I kind? Did I add some beauty to the world?

What qualities do you feel a soulful relationship has? I can only attempt to say based on the longest and deepest relationship of my life, my relationship with Karen. We have gone through a great deal as a couple fighting to learn how to be together. Fighting to maintain identity and separation and attachment, and on more than one occasion, fighting to keep the relationship alive. Stubbornness in both is a good quality to have I think. Curiosity is also good and being able to sync up with each other helps keep the energies flowing. Being kind and practicing dropping small pebbles of loving-kindness into the relational pool while also dropping the defenses and pretenses our egos throw up as barriers to learning that stuff is seldom all about me or her or him. Mystery. Insight. Spontaneity. Vulnerability. Forgiveness. Mercy and maybe above all – playfulness.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? I grew up believing, as Paul Simon said, that “god keeps his eyes on us all.”  I stopped believing that when I went through seminary and realized god is far more intimate than I can imagine. I was lucky. My early religious upbringing was just liberal enough to whet an appetite and wishy-washy enough to maintain healthy doubt.

This has a been a worthwhile endeavor – thank you for inviting me to respond.

See more of Robert’s beautiful photographs at www.RBridgesImagery.com and esty. Mali & Joe, authors of The Soulmate Experience: A Practical Guide to Creating Extraordinary Relationships and creators of Mantras for Making Love and Overcoming Jealousy