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But if we're judging our actions solely on the results we see before us, and not considering the heart space giving rise to and threading throughout what we do, then we have to ask, "On whose timetable do we measure success and failure?" Any ordinary favor we do for someone or any compassionate reaching out may seem to be going nowhere at first, but may be planting a seed we can't see right now. Sometimes we need to just do the best we can and then trust in an unfolding we can't design or ordain.

There are time, though, when our "well-meaning" actions arise from a complex set of intentions that we aren't aware of. A seemingly generous act born out of a tangled skein of self-hatred, feeling, I don't deserve to have anything so I might as well give it away, is more a kind of martyrdom. An act that appears to be ethical but is really born out of fear has its center in rigid repression. Professing love for someone else through giving a gift when, deep down, we can't easily love ourselves becomes codependency, a loss of boundaries, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy.

By making an effort to notice our intentions with honesty and clarity, we gain a great deal of freedom. If we take the time to pay quiet attention, perhaps through meditation or contemplation, we may develop a completely different understanding of why we do the things we do and a new perspective on how to trust that we've done the best we can.

When we develop the habit of noticing our intentions, we have a much better compass with which to navigate our lives. We learn to cast a glance at our motivation before we speak or act, which frees us to live the life we want.

And it frees us to see more clearly into what our actions mean to us and how we can genuinely manifest what we love and care about. We have the power to create our lives from the inside out. I'm inspired by the example of Sudha Chandran, a contemporary classical Indian dancer whose career was abruptly brought to a halt when her right leg had to be amputated. After she had been fitted with an artificial limb, she went back to dancing. When asked how she had managed it, she responded simply, "You don't need feet to dance."

Sharon Salzberg is the author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (Riverhead). Her website is Loving-Kindness.org.

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