Exercising the "Oops" Reflex in Meditation and Prayer

The practices of Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation have some similarities and some differences. One thing they have in common is they both exercise the "oops" reflex. But before we talk about what that is and why it's so important, let's consider some of the ways these two practices are different.

Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation are different in at least two ways: 

  1. The primary action of the practice.
  2. The primary objective of the practice.

The Primary Action

The primary action of Centering Prayer is to continuously return to an intention to open ourselves to the presence and action of Spirit. The primary action of Mindfulness Meditation is to pay attention to something, such as the breath, in order to develop clear presence.

Of course, in Centering Prayer, a fair amount of attention is required to maintain our intention, and in Mindfulness Meditation there is an intention to pay attention. So it's the action that's emphasized that creates the distinction.

The Primary Objective

The primary objective of Mindfulness Meditation is to be fully present in an experience of pure awareness - a nonconceptual state of selflessness at one with everything. The primary objective of Centering Prayer is to develop a relationship with God ultimately culminating in what mystics call divine union - an experience of oneness with God.

Of course, the only place we can find God is in the present moment, and it might be argued that oneness with everything is oneness with God. So again, the objective that's emphasized creates the distinction.

Cultivating the "Oops" Reflex

In both practices, it is necessary to deal with the habit of thinking. Thinking is the primary distraction practitioners face in both Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation. It is impossible to engage in the primary action of either practice if we're lost in thought. In fact, if we could experience divine union or selfless oneness just by thinking, we'd all be enlightened already because we're thinking all the time.

So both practices require the practitioner to notice when they'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 doesn't carry harsh judgment. Oops, I'm lost in thought again. Oops, I forgot what I'm doing. Oops, I got distracted.

Then it's simply a matter of returning to the activity at hand.

The Centering Prayer practitioner comes back to a sacred symbol, perhaps a word like Jesus or love, as a reminder of their intention.

The Mindfulness Meditation practitioner returns to the object of attention, such as the breath, and begins again to open to the present moment.

It's this constant process of distraction - oops - return that develops the oops reflex. It's a mental reflex of noticing we're distracted and redirecting the mind. We do it again and again and again when we practice.

Why the "Oops" Reflex Matters

But what does this matter? Is it really important?

In fact, the oops reflex is very useful. It helps us know when we're distracted and how to redirect our mind.

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, as the scent of spring air captivates your imagination. You feel a sense of wonder at the sanctity of all life.

You might have missed this 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 this traffic light you thankfully had the wherewithal to stop at. So you make a 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 as you watch her safely make it to the other side of the road. You say a little prayer thanking God everyone is okay.

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

Summary

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 or the activity at hand. It's a reflex that gets exercised and therefore gets stronger in both meditation and prayer. And while the ultimate objective of these practices isn't necessarily cultivating the oops reflex, doing so can both enhance the quality of our life and make us a little safer in the world. That seems like a good thing to me.