The Oops! Reflex in Mindfulness Meditation Practice and Daily Living

Nothing takes us farther away from the present moment than being completely lost in thought. This post considers how we deal with the thinking mind and why it’s so important.

A big part of meditation practice is noticing when we’re lost in thought. This noticing is what I like to call the oops reflex. I like this word oops because it’s lighthearted and doesn’t tend to carry harsh judgment. Oops, I’m lost in thought. Oops, I forgot what I was doing. Oops, I got distracted.

The Oops Reflex in Practice

When we meditate, we intentionally pay attention to something, like the breath, in order to develop clear presence. This helps us detach from thinking so we can fully experience what’s going on right here, right now. In fact, thinking is the primary distraction meditation practitioners face. When we’re lost in thought, it’s practically impossible to pay attention to anything (except what we’re thinking).

Once we recognize that we’re distracted, though, then we can redirect our attention to the activity at hand. In meditation practice, that generally means once again paying attention to our designated object of meditation while opening to the present moment.

It’s this constant process of distraction – oops – return that develops the oops reflex. We do this again and again when we practice.

The Oops Reflex in Daily Life

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

In fact, the oops reflex is very useful. It helps us become more aware during those times in daily life when we get so distracted.

Here’s an example.

You’re taking a walk. Oops. You happen to notice you’re completely lost in thought. So you return to the present moment, becoming more aware of your surroundings. The apple trees are blossoming. Some daffodils have poked their yellow heads out of the ground. The fresh air suddenly captivates you. A sense of wonder enfolds you.

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

Here’s another example.

You’re driving in heavy traffic, 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. Thankfully she’s safe. You take a deep breath and move on.

You might have hit that little girl if you hadn’t been paying attention.

Here’s one more.

You’re in the kitchen cutting a thick-skinned squash with a new knife. Your finger is right in the way and…okay, so this is what happened to me the other day, and I didn’t exercise the oops reflex. It’s amazing how much one little finger can bleed.


The oops reflex is the natural capacity of the mind to continuously return to the present moment. It’s an important mental reflex that gets stronger the more we meditate. And while the ultimate objective of meditation 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.

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