When it comes to dating and finding lasting love, says Basha Kaplan, a Naples, Fla., psychologist and relationships expert, you find the right person by figuring out what your soul truly needs before you commit to someone.

Dating can turn from dreadful to nearly delectable when you see it as a path to self-discovery -- and not some pass/fail test requiring industrial-strength deodorant, a license for heavy emotional lifting, and lots of time to lose.

In fact, dating is daunting for so many men and women, says Kaplan, because they have been taught to do it superficially, solely from their "personalities" -- what people project to the world -- rather than from their deeper needs. Kaplan calls it "mask dating and mating."

"The externals," she says,"how somebody looks, their job, their car -- they certainly can be important, but if they're the main criteria for dating and mating, that's when relationships break down." People have no idea what they really want from love and how to recognize kindred spirits, says Kaplan.

So Kaplan and Gail Prince wrote "Soul Dating to Soul Mating: On the Path Toward Spiritual Partnership" (Perigee, $14, paperback), a how to date and mate with less desperation and more dignity, clarity and purpose guide.

"Dating," says Kaplan, "doesn't have to be torture. It can be what it truly is meant to be -- a learning experience, a time to connect with other human beings, to find out what you truly need. It's a time to meet people while meeting yourself along the way."

Among the suggestions in the book:

Don't think of dating as disconnected from your life, think of it as a "ruling in" -- not a "ruling out" -- process. "There are no hard and fast rules in dating -- not even any `bad places' to meet people," says Prince, a speaker on relationship issues. "You can meet your soul mate in a bar -- if you come to that bar being real, not wearing your mask."

Says Kaplan: "Date many people at the same time if you like. Just don't game-play."

Look for mateable not just dateable. "Dateable people," says Kaplan, "are often fun and very skilled at seduction -- but not at maintaining relationships. They may shower you with flowers, candy and attention and then never call back or offer emotional support when you have rough times."

Don't reveal everything about yourself in one gulp. Quality dating takes time. Test the emotional waters first. "When you meet someone new, reveal a `low-vulnerable,' " Kaplan says, "like, `I hate Mondays.' If the response is encouraging, proceed to a more `high-vulnerable': `I feel depressed every Monday.' " Reveal yourself at your own pace. The ability to share vulnerables is key to what Kaplan calls "emotional safety" with someone -- creating the kind of "we" that frees up both of your individualities.

Develop a romantic friendship. For lasting love, find the greatest friend -- not the greatest lover. Recent Chicago and Duke Universities studies concluded that having a close confidant strengthens immune function, hastens recovery from major surgery -- and can even prolong life. Look for someone who's "friend to your mind" -- not just your body.

Know your nonnegotiables -- what you will not do without in a relationship. "One of the biggest relationship sabotagers," Kaplan says, "is giving up all your personal preferences -- just to please someone else." Nonnegotiables are bottom lines for you emotionally -- or in any other way. If, for example, you really want someone who likes to talk, don't just settle for someone who's silent. Don't waste your time dating someone who will not make you happy in the most basic way. Make a list of your "nonnegotiables" and stick to them. Giving up personal preferences to "please" is the fastest way to sink a relationship.

Think of rejection as a gift. Rejection can be a good thing, Kaplan explains. Generally it's your values or your lifestyle that are being rejected, so rejection saves you time and energy on a doomed relationship. It can give you the gift of insight.

Eliminate "my type" dating. One trap many men and women fall into, Kaplan says, is dating merely from "common interests and backgrounds." This is fine if you want a "companionship relationship," someone to go places and do things with, but not if you want someone who will love all parts of you.

Be yourself. Don't act in a relationship. There's no payoff for faking the dating/mating process, no "Best Actor or Actress in a Relationships" Academy Award.

Go ahead -- date with daring.

Dare to be real on your next date (even in a noisy bar). Date more than one person at a time. Have three dates in one day. You just might meet your soul mate -- in the process of meeting yourself.

PREPARING FOR THE ENCOUNTER

Early in their book, "Soul Dating to Soul Mating," Basha Kaplan and Gail Prince list "soulwork steps" to help people prepare to meet (and recognize) their soul mate. Among them:

Learn how to be alone -- and to enjoy it. Stop dating until you learn to love yourself, to take care of yourself, says Kaplan, who married for the first time (and found her soul mate) at age 48. "Only if you love yourself will you know how to love someone else."

Include daily, meaningful "being" (instead of "doing") states in your life. Meditate, think, enjoy your plants. There is no way you can touch your soul unless you first have a "being relationship" with yourself, unless you can be quiet and peaceful alone.

Make the leap of faith that if you are genuine and real in life -- good things will come to you. You'll attract the kind of person you want.