Exercising the “Oops” Reflex

The primary activity during mindfulness meditation is paying attention to something, like the breath, in order to develop clear presence. The primary objective is to fully experience what’s going on right here, right now. Therefore, when we practice mindfulness, we exercise the “oops” reflex. This post considers what that is and why it’s so important.

The Oops Reflex in Practice

In order to remain present, it’s necessary to deal with the habit of thinking. Thinking is the primary distraction meditation practitioners face. It’s impossible to pay attention to anything (except thinking) if we’re lost in thought. So a big part of mindfulness practice is noticing when we’re lost in thought.

This noticing is what I call the oops reflex. I like this word oops because it’s lighthearted. It’s a simple little word that shouldn’t carry harsh judgment. Oops, I’m lost in thought again. Oops, I forgot what I was doing. Oops, I got distracted.

Then it’s simply a matter of returning to the activity at hand, which means  returning to the designated object of attention and beginning again to open to the present moment.

It’s this constant process of distraction – oops – return that develops the oops reflex. It’s just noticing we’re distracted and then redirecting the mind. We do this again and again and again when we practice.

The Oops Reflex in Daily Life

But what does this matter? Is it really so important?

In fact, the oops reflex is very useful. It helps us to be more aware of all those times in daily life when we’re distracted.

Here are some examples:

You’re taking a walk. You notice you’re completely lost in thought. You return to the present moment and become more aware of your surroundings. You see the apple trees blossoming and the daffodils that have poked out from the ground. The fresh air suddenly captivates you. A sense of wonder at the sanctity of life emerges.

You might have missed that moment if you hadn’t exercised the oops reflex. Here’s another example.

You’re driving in heavy traffic and completely wrapped up in rehearsing a presentation. Suddenly you wonder how you even got from your house to the traffic light you thankfully had the wherewithal to stop at. So you make a conscious decision to pay more attention to the road. Just around the next bend, a little girl runs into the street as you slam on your brakes. Your heart races, but thankfully she’s safe. You take a deep breath and move on.

Obviously , you might have hit that little girl if you hadn’t been paying attention. Here’s one more example.

You’re in the kitchen cutting a thick-skinned squash with a new knife. Your finger is right in the way and…

Okay, so that’s what happened to me the other day, and I didn’t exercise the oops reflex. It’s amazing how much a finger can bleed.


So that’s the oops reflex and why it’s so important. It’s actually a natural capacity of the mind to continuously return to the present moment and the activity at hand. It’s an important mental reflex that gets stronger the more we meditate. And while the ultimate objective of practice isn’t necessarily cultivating the oops reflex, doing so can both enhance our quality of life and make us a little safer in the world. That seems like a good thing to me.

2 Replies to “Exercising the “Oops” Reflex”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on the “Oops…” reflex, Kim — an endowment which keeps us alive, functioning AND an ever-active participant in the wonder of evolution per se.

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