When I realize I haven't been being present, I know I've been engaging in thought patterns that are so familiar as to be invisible. I may not identify specific phrases of that background commentary, and it may not be blatantly negative, but I can feel the sentiment of it as a general tone of discontent – a function of measuring/assessing the present, re-telling stories from the past, or fabricating future scenarios.
I could, and do, attempt to identify the effect of this background tone on particular aspects of my life. What are my unexamined, habitual thought patterns about my body, money, relationships, work, home? But efforts to re-direct these thought patterns can lead to micro-managing, like herding one stray cat at a time. Yes, it works to a degree, but lately I am more and more curious to discover what would gather all the cats, at once.
What I've come to is this idea of establishing a tone that simultaneously directs my thoughts in a productive direction, and prevents disabling thoughts from having a place to latch on. You've heard the phrase, “the better it gets, the better it gets” (and its opposite); we think and see more of whatever ideas we've already got going. It may be true that I always have the choice to entertain whatever thoughts arise, or refrain from thinking (try that!) or choose a different thought, but there's the issue of momentum in a given direction. It's hard to stop a moving train! Why not establish clear boundaries for which thoughts arrive, early on? Why not put screens in my windows, rather than leaving them wide open – only to chase down every fly that wanders through?
I've been thinking of this tone-setting as selecting a mood, and how whatever mood we practice in fact establishes a degree of immunity. When your (physical) immune system is working well, it's no problem at all to avoid getting sick. Having good immunity doesn't give license to take unnecessary risks; I'm not going to stop washing my hands during flu season. But if I attend to my overall wellbeing, taking appropriate actions (and avoiding deleterious ones) to keep my physical self healthy, then I don't have to question my ability to fend off illness. I believe that mood works in a similar way: If I attend to my overall attitude, taking appropriate actions to affirm my wellbeing (meditate, journal, appreciate) and avoid risky behavior (too much screen time, not enough sleep, trying to get too much done), then I can trust that the tone of my mood will generate momentum in a generally positive direction. Without trying to change specific negative thoughts head-on, I can trust that my overall positive mood will shift my perspective, on every topic, and those thoughts of concern just won't even make an appearance.