Ellie Burrows Gluck
by Danielle Cantor
Ellie Burrows Gluck is the cofounder and CEO of MNDFL, New York City's premier meditation studio, as well as a Vedic Meditation teacher, certified personal development coach, and writer. After graduating from Northwestern University, Gluck worked as a film executive. But her plans to build a career in Hollywood – like her father, TV director James Burrows – changed drastically as she would never share his passion for the entertainment business. Gluck’s passion instead lay in consciousness, mindfulness, and alternative methods of healing. After traveling the world as a spiritual tourist and earning her Certificate in Coaching, Gluck co-founded MNDFL in 2014. The business includes meditation studios, corporate programming, teacher training, an on-demand meditation channel, and a non-profit arm, MNDFL Ed.
Did your proximity to Hollywood color your early life?
While I grew up in L.A., my parents always made it clear that the only reason we lived in Los Angeles was because that's where my dad needed to work. My mom was from Florida and my dad is from New York, and I think they raised East Coast kids on the West Coast. We went to a Jewish camp in North Carolina and spent every summer in Vermont. I lived a lot of life when I was young: My parents were divorced. My mom had multiple sclerosis and eventually passed away from brain cancer, which she was diagnosed with when I was in eighth grade. So while I had a lot of privilege growing up, I had the same amount of heartbreak.
What was the role of Judaism in your childhood?
My mother was really the epicenter of my love of Judaism. Cooking wasn't her greatest skill, but she always hosted the High Holidays and took us to temple and to Hebrew school. We had a deal in our house that if you wanted to have weekend plans, you had to be home for Shabbat dinner. That was our time together as a family during the week, and it was really special.
Do you consider yourself to be a natural leader?
I would have to say it's come pretty naturally, when I look at what I've done in my life: I was a peer support group leader at my high school, Harvard-Westlake, and in college I was a chairperson in my sorority house. As a middle child, I've always been an amazing negotiator and arbiter between two things. Despite the emotional hardships we went through, I think my parents raised pretty centered, confident leaders, because they were leaders in their lives. Emotional intelligence is another important attribute: Maybe because my sisters and I had to feel so many things from such a young age, that made us comfortable and confident in our emotional body, which is important to developing leadership skills.
You started your career in the film industry: As an insider, what is your take on the evolving representation of women in film and television?
The #MeToo movement was definitely a turning point. I think that women have been objectified, underestimated, and dumbed down since the dawn of time, and most women we see on TV are largely a product of the male gaze. We know that, because there is a disproportionate amount of male writers and directors. I don't by any stretch of the imagination think that we're out of the woods in terms of equity in Hollywood, but for the first time in a long time, I think people Hollywood are feeling a seismic shift. Male decision-makers are more mindful about how they talk to their female colleagues and the content they are putting into the world. There used to be a comfort level that any kind of behavior would fly. I witnessed that firsthand, the way women were treated and the kind of content that was made. I don't work in the industry anymore, but my female friends who still do can feel a difference, and that’s a good thing.
Did you plan to follow in your father's footsteps?
My father is the best at what he does in the world, and when you grow up around that kind of genius and excellence, you hold yourself to a certain kind of standard. My father derives an enormous amount of joy from what he does, so I assumed that joy was also awaiting me. I felt entitled to that joy. I pursued a degree in film and television in college, but realized very quickly after college that I did not love it as my father does. I would go to staff meetings and listen to they way my colleagues talked about film, and I would think, "I truly don't have a passion for any of this. This can't be how my dad feels about his work." I was on this track to be an executive in the film business and I felt like I was living someone else's dream. But watching my dad show up every day for what he loves to do really inspired me to pursue what Ilove to do. And let’s be clear, privilege is a part of my story: My mom passed away, so I inherited a little bit of money that allowed me start my own business, and to go out and do what I love. In college I was sure I was going to be the next Sherry Lansing – who went to Northwestern, like I did, and was the first female president of Paramount. I always knew I was going to run a studio, I just got my 'M's confused – it ended up being a meditation studio, not a movie studio.
Tell me about your journey from movies to meditation.
I was first exposed to meditation on a journey to heal myself after a health scare in 2008. After I quit my job in film, I noticed that I could go to the gym for two hours a day, six days a week, but I couldn't make 10 minutes of meditation happen in my own home. So I asked myself, "What is the difference?" And the answer was the accountability structure. The gym gave me a place to go, a teacher I loved, a spot I loved dancing in, a community I loved seeing when I went to my workout. I wanted the same thing around my meditation practice, so that's where the idea for MNDFL started. I came to the business intending to operate it, raise the capital, and focus on the branding and community development, but I ended up learning Vedic meditation – a really simple, effortless technique where you practice twice a day for 20 minutes bringing your mind to a mantra. The more I did it, the more I wanted to learn about it. That led to becoming a teacher. I did an integrated program over 15 months, including a retreat where I meditated for 14 hours a day, for 30 days in a row. The idea in our meditation tradition is that in order to teach meditation, your physiology has to change, and by doing that much meditation, it will. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – and the best bachelorette party of all time. I did it during the year of my engagement.
For those who are not acquainted with meditation, what is it and what are its benefits?
Meditation is the act of bringing your full attention or mind to an object, like the breath or mantra. The only thing you need to do while meditating is become aware when your mind has wandered and to gently and lovingly come back to your breath. As you make that choice between your rabbit-hole of thoughts and your breath, you begin to learn how to flex that muscle of choice off the meditation cushion. From the Buddhist perspective, emotions are just thoughts with a lot of energy behind them. So if we can change how we relate to our thoughts, then we can change the way we act on them. As for the benefits, meditation elicits the relaxation response in the body. When paired with exercise, it shows a reduction in depression. It helps you sleep better, and can boost your immune system. Long-term meditators also show greater connectivity between their prefrontal cortex (executive functioning, planning) and their amygdala (fight or flight), which means they are less likely to get emotionally highjacked. This goes back to meditation allowing you to cultivate the art of choice – you get to choose how you act when you’re feeling triggered. Meditation can help us meet the stressors in our lives with more energy, resilience, and clarity, and swim through the rough waters of life with a bit more ease and grace.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about meditation?
The idea that meditation turns off your brain is not true. It's a dynamic practice; you need your mind to meditate. Another misconception is that meditation is a cure-all. It's not like you become enlightened the day you start meditating. The idea is to make the commitment to have a practice, which requires consistency to see the cumulative benefits over time. Those three Cs are really helpful: commitment, consistency, and cumulative. The idea that someone can't do it is false. Even if you could bring your full attention for five seconds to one breath, that would technically count as meditation. Everyone can do it – as young as five, all the way up to your last breath.
As the CEO of a fast-growing company opening brick-and-mortar locations, how do you compete with digital meditation resources?
If you don't have access to in-person teachers, the apps are wonderful, but your iPhone can't do for you what a teacher can do. You can't talk to it about emotions or things that are coming up as you meditate, or why your elbow's hurting, or why you're seeing colors. You won’t feel the same type of community that you would at MNDFL. Meditating at home is like singing in the shower, and meditating in a room with people is singing in the choir – you feel the reverberation of everyone around you. That community piece can be really helpful for accountability. Also, we have expert teachers who have donated their lives to studying these wisdom traditions, and they get in that room and offer their wisdom so generously.
What is the process of creating meditation spaces in the city that never sleeps?
We made the spaces feel like home. Home, in its ideal, most exalted version, is a place of comfort. It feels familiar, inviting, and safe when you return to it at the end of your day. We make the spaces so beautiful and relaxing that you want to be there every day, and by being there every day, you're showing up for your meditation practice, which makes it more likely that you’ll be kinder to yourself and to others – and then maybe society at large will get kinder as a result. We kept all the colors calm and neutral, there's space to gather, there's always free tea. I know we're doing something right when people step over the threshold and say, "I cannot believe this place is in New York City.”