In medieval times, Damascus steel was famous throughout Europe and the Middle East because it surpassed all other types of steel with its strength and flexibility. Damascus, in southwestern Syria, became a center for the production of highly prized swords and armor. Their specialized steel-making process was one of the great industrial secrets of the times. It turns out, interestingly, that the ability to make this kind of steel probably originated in India, where it is known to have existed as early as 300 BC, and may even go back to the time of the Bhagavad Gita.
The method for making this special steel was to place iron and carbon together in a crucible, which is a type of ceramic clay pot that can be heated to a very high temperature. The components must be held at high heat long enough to allow the metal to melt and fuse and the impurities, or slag, to be removed.
The more sensitive readers are probably now scratching their heads and asking themselves, “Why in the world, in what is supposed to be a spiritual blog, is he prattling on about steel and swords?” So, for you poets and bhaktis, I am now done with armor and weapons. But before you get too relaxed, I have more to say about crucibles.
In life, some people make progress faster than others. This is true in school, business, athletics, and virtually any field of activity. While some people seem to be born with more ability or in better circumstances, true greatness is made, not born. In fact, it takes many lifetimes for a soul to be forged into the human equivalent of Damascus steel.
Over the years of dealing with thousands of spiritual seekers, I’ve seen a pattern emerge. Those who allow themselves to be placed in crucibles—situations requiring the long application of fortitude and will—make faster progress than those who avoid challenges. Long periods of high intensity make these devotees strong and flexible. Eventually they are able to cut through any challenge life can throw at them. Heated to high temperatures, they become sources of light, giving love and support to countless others.
In contrast, those who avoid their tests gradually become weak and brittle. Not many of these can withstand the daily discipline required of a Kriya Yogi, nor can they last long in the crucible of a life given to God.
Given time, however, a more important quality emerges than merely the strength to withstand life’s pressures. The impurities of consciousness, the slag of delusion, begins to be burnt away.
We would do well willingly to place ourselves into a spiritual crucible from time to time. Once in a while it is good to serve above and beyond what you think are your limits. Once a week it is beneficial to meditate for several hours. Paramhansa Yogananda said that the mind must become accustomed to the demands of longer, deeper concentration before it is ready for higher states of awareness and the tremendous flow of energy that comes in samadhi. And the heart must be made ready for the blazing light of Divine Mother’s love that burns away all of our impurities.