Quick Take:

Lookout opinion writer Marisa Messina’s résumé is impressive: She has three Stanford degrees and has worked for Fortune 500 companies. But her most intense work is learning to take care of her own body and brain and figure out “the good life.” Here, she invites you into her work-in-progress wellness journey, which includes farm fields and the acupuncture table.

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I don’t think many people spend the summer before attending Stanford digging in the dirt.

I did.

In 2012, I went to Mayville, Michigan, and spent the summer volunteering as a WWOOFer at Nature’s Pace Organic Farm. My daily routine: harvesting basil at pre-dawn by flashlight, scissoring arugula with the sunrise, tilling root vegetables after lunch, and picking sungolds one by one all afternoon under the blazing sun.

It was my first time working with my hands as opposed to just my head, and I expected the transition would include some pain. Yet, other than a little sunburn, I found myself feeling increasingly better, not worse, as the first days bled into the first weeks. Breathing fresh air all day certainly helped. But I credit the vegetarian diet.

At Nature’s Pace, we ate what we grew — specifically, whatever we couldn’t sell at the thrice-weekly farmers markets. Collard leaves that a bug had munched. Zucchinis on the verge of squishy. Potatoes we WWOOFers had accidentally whacked with our spades. You’d think working a 40-acre farm with nothing but hand tools, I’d be craving steak to go with those potatoes …

But in fact, my body felt fantastic — so light and so alive.

When the summer concluded, I left the farm but maintained my vegetarian diet; I didn’t see any reason to go back to eating meat, chicken or fish if I could feel this good without it.

I’m still vegetarian, 11 years later.

I became vegetarian “before it was cool,” but various flavors of plant-based diets have been an increasing trend. As of last year, 22% of the global population is vegetarian, and plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030. The U.S. population is catching on, with one in 10 Americans not eating meat for various reasons. (And there are a lot of good reasons.)

Making a choice to eat what felt right for me has turned out to be only one step in a long physio-mental healing journey. As a child of today’s “stress society,” I’ve found even the best vegetarian comfort foods (like tofu lasagna, my favorite recipe!) can’t fix my Raynaud’s or soothe my stress-induced acne or make me sleep through the night.

To help with those, I get acupuncture.

Acupuncture is part of the author's health journey.
Acupuncture is part of the author’s health journey. Credit: Via Marisa Messina

Yes, acupuncture. Working with “energy pathways” in the body to “redirect the qi” sounds totally woo, I know, and doing that with needles seemed scary — until I tried it.

Before my first visit to Golden Light Acupuncture, I was anticipating the pain of a tattoo gun. “I’ve got ink in three places, I’m tough, I can handle this,” I kept telling myself. In truth, the imagination-reality gap was colossal. My acupuncturist turned out to be a dynamo healer who is as gentle as she is skilled, and I’ve often told her, “OK, I’m ready,” only to find out all the needles are already in place.

Although I can’t feel them during the sessions, I feel their effects unequivocally: I have better circulation in my fingers and toes, my face is no longer a pimple mountain range, and I sleep straight through the night most nights now. It’s amazing.

No wonder this Eastern medicinal art has endured across nearly 3,000 years of history. This time, I’m following a trend rather than setting it. Acupuncture has been adopted more and more widely in mainstream (Western) medicine in recent decades, with promising healing results across a range of maladies. Here in Santa Cruz, it’s easy to find.

The next step in my healing journey is perhaps the hardest yet.

I’m in the middle of redefining my professional life to optimize for mental wellness. I’m swapping the tech-driven intensity that has defined my career thus far for something more sustainable, stable, sane. (And probably less lucrative, but that’s a tradeoff I don’t mind.)

As I’m starting to walk the tangled and poorly marked trail toward professional happiness, I’ve run into some big questions. Why does the Protestant ethic, which effectively links work to wealth and wealth to eternal glory, still have such potency in our apparently secular America?

Marisa Messina.
Marisa Messina. Credit: Via Marisa Messina

If I put my three Stanford diplomas under my bed and started working a manual labor job that must end when I leave the factory floor, would that be a shirking of my responsibilities given my education, or a suitable mental health strategy, or both?

I think I’m starting to understand why Jacob, the co-owner of Nature’s Pace, took his Harvard Ph.D. and started a farm.

But I know we can’t all pick kohlrabi in search of contentment.

There has to be a way to find some balance, some healing, within the existing structures of our lives.

I’m committed to yoga and vegetarianism and acupuncture as my ballast to keep me stable in the swirl. And I’m sure I’ll add more on the self-care side as I go.

Healing is a journey. Have you started yours?

Marisa Messina is an avid outdoorswoman who loves bringing people and nature closer together. Currently earning her Master of Business Administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where she’s focusing on sustainable business), Marisa spends her non-class hours building her own business (info forthcoming!), guiding tours with Kayak Connection, exploring new hiking trails and listening to the ocean. Her previous piece for Lookout, on yoga, appeared in January.

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