Inner experience is more important than the external practices that support the inner movement (prayers, recitation, bowing, etc). Intention and cultivation are more important than the feeling-tone at the moment of taking refuge or sharing the good. We may not feel confident about taking refuge, or generous in sharing the good, but we practice doing them, and as they deepen, they moves us, and we let them. We may be moved to bow, or pray, and then those movements are meaningful.
Taking refuge begins with disgust with the ignoring/confusion/reactivity that creates suffering, and coming to see and acknowledge that it is futile to try to find happiness through reactivity. Out of disgust and hopelessness, we are moved to turn away from confusion and reactivity, and we begin to find the willingness, and to form the intention, to move toward freedom -- to free ourselves and others from struggle and suffering.
Taking refuge is disavowing our habitual attachment and allegiance to patterned behaviors, and touching and pledging fidelity to the three jewels. The three jewels operate on many levels, and any of the levels are good. (Click here to see Ken McLeod's explanation of inner, outer, and ultimate refuge). Ultimately, buddha is our inherent indestructible awareness; dharma is any practice that frees us and our inherent ability to integrate practice into our life; sangha is anyone who is also cultivating awareness and compassion -- that is, everyone.
The purpose of practice is to free ourselves and others from suffering and its causes. Dedicating the merit means sharing the good that comes from our practice. We acknowledge and appreciate the effort that has gone into our practice, and every bit of the pleasure and good that has come or ever will come from our practice, and we form the intention to share it with others. We appreciate and share every moment of pleasure, peace, clarity, understanding, and freedom, and we freely share those with everyone.
Better to take refuge, breathe in and out three times in attention, and share the good, than to get tangled up in complex practices for hours, striving and grasping for results.